Would you trust Nostradamus with the future of your business?
I expect most of us would say no. You don’t develop the skills, experience, and knowledge to succeed in your industry, only to look to the stars for advice.
Yet, in many ways, that is what some major companies are starting to do in an effort to remain innovative, and escape the boundaries of their own understanding in the pursuit of new ideas that could redefine the way we live our lives.
Their seers are not astrologers or fortune tellers, however. They are science fiction writers; authors whose visions of humanity’s future were written to entertain, but now serve to inspire those whose role it is to bring these visions to life.
It sounds crazy, but for companies looking to gain an edge on their competition, it makes sense. In 1888’s Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy created the concept of the credit card. Earbuds came to life in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And when Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, he didn’t just predict the principles of astronautics, he defined them. Looking at these examples, it seems almost crazier not to consult with sci-fi writers.
But it’s not just the ideas for products or concepts that intrigue businesses. Ultimately, sci-fi is not about proposing how cool future gizmos will be, but the impact their presence would have on the psychology of individuals in a society in which they actually existed. There’s few better examples than William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which predicted many of the negative traits of Internet culture at a time when personal computers were still a novelty. Taken as a hypothesis on how people would abuse such a vast network, could solutions to some of the Internet’s most prominent issues been formulated before the issues themselves existed?
Such questions led to Intel founding The Tomorrow Project in 2011. Applicants were asked to write short stories based on projects in development at Intel labs, in order to see whether the authors thought of any uses or flaws that the scientists have overlooked. Though the project site is no longer online, you can read some of the resulting stories here.
Intel futurist Brian David Johnson explains
the value of The Tomorrow Project.
Companies including Ford, Fox Digital Studios, and Pepsico followed suit. And as interest bloomed, savvy writers found ways to take advantage of it.
Ari Popper was President of a media-research company when he decided to take a ten-week course on science-fiction writing. It changed his life. He wanted to spend every day bringing futuristic ideas to life on the page. But he knew there was no money in being ‘just’ an author.
So he quit his job in order to found SciFutures, a ‘corporate visioning’ firm that creates branded content in the form of sci-fi short fiction.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Popper and his team explain that while there are certainly challenges when it comes to pairing a writer’s vision with brand needs – you can’t exactly write a story about a surveillance state for Samsung – the end result is always worth it.
“As a freelancing gig, it’s not much money”, says Hugo-Award winner Ken Liu. “But you have the chance to shape and impact the development of a technology that matters to you.”
The stories are used not only to influence the public, but executives within the client’s organisation. In some cases, they serve as an elaborate pitch for a new product, presenting it in a fashion that portrays its value in a way statistics and market analysis cannot.
Of course, it’s all based on prediction. But unlike the seers of old, sci-fi writers are developing their ideas around a bastion of knowable truth: the human psyche. That alone makes their stories worth reading for anyone in business.